HONG KONG DIARY
Old China Hands
Back in the golden age of globaliz — er, sorry — colonization, the sun never set on the British Empire or the Brits who were posted throughout the empire in strategic Asian cities like Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and all over the Indian subcontinent. These cities were commercial powerhouses, with economies built on trade monopolies, harbors protected by the British Navy, and the entire socio-economic order fueled with global investments attracted by relaxed banking systems and British-imposed rule of law. Over the years, thousands of Brits were posted to barracks, banks, customs houses, insurance firms, and investment brokerages all across the Empire’s eastern edges.
Mind you, such a posting — especially to Hong Kong — was not necessarily a hardship. Whether in the service of the crown or the various monopolies, these “old China hands” served themselves a share of the profits as they served and protected the interests of the Empire. And even in the last-century twilight of that era — long after the Empire was, for all intents, gone — many thousands stayed on. A new empire was rising, albeit a new iteration of the oldest empire on earth: China. And Hong Kong — still part of the Crown but now in the shadow of the new empire — could still profit as the 20th century gateway to the China trade.
They raised families in high rises along Mid Levels (up the face of Victoria Peak as high as geography will permit), in bungalows in quaint fishing villages like Aberdeen and Stanley, and in estates on the peaktop itself. Filipino maids and Cantonese houseboys kept up home and garden front while someone else’s nai-nai tended to the children. Wine cellars were stocked with wines of the world selected by their more louche ex-pat pals. They dined in style in Lan Kwai Fung, pub-crawled in Bye Fah Guy, and walked on the wild side in Wanchai. They crisscrossed the harbor in junks fitted as party boats, and combed Hollywood Road for antiques. They played the ponies at Happy Valley, and windsurfed on Chung Chao island. It was said — with pride — that there were more Rolls Royces and Bentleys per capita in Hong Kong than anywhere else in the world, and that was for the entire population, not just the old China hands on the wheels.
The hand-over (as the formal termination of Britain’s ninety-nine year lease of Hong Kong from China is known) in 1997 brought great change across a wide spectrum of Hong Kong life in sometimes jarring but often subtle ways. The city remained vibrant as ever: the skyscrapers still scraped, the Star Ferry stayed its plucky course, and the Peninsula Hotel kept high tea at 2 PM sharp. But there was a sense of loss in the wind as bejeweled Hong Kong was set to adorn a new crown. And the Brits started to drift away, gradually at first.
This is not to suggest there was a complete exodus. To be sure, there were still Brits and other westerners in them thar hills, and there always will be — just fewer of them. With every visit I made, there were fewer western faces on the MTR subways and ferries, on beaches, in banks, and the stock exchange. In their place, the new wealthy class of mainland Chinese — with eased immigration and residency restrictions — were snapping up the choice real estate along with top-level jobs to pay for such digs. In fact, mainland people would soon be flooding all echelons of Hong Kong society (don’t get me started on those long lines at Hong Kong Disney — strictly for the mainland tourists!).
Meanwhile, the best pubs and restos still bustled. After all, the swells will always come out for a good time, no matter how few of them are left standing. And the entire western world — Brits included — will always beat a path to Hong Kong. It remains the gateway to China. The harbor is a magnet for tourists. And there are global trade shows held there year-round, especially in April and October when westerners (or guilo) amass for the Canton Fair in nearby Guangzhou, the nai-nai of all trade shows. All during these months, occupancy levels (and room rates) rise in western-style hotels, and good tables in good western restaurants are hard to find. But these days, when the fairs close down the guilo go home, Brits included.
It is true that some professors make the ivory tower their classroom. And while there is still plenty of ivory to be had in Hong Kong (and rhino horn, elk antler, and bear pancreas just over the China border), this Professor is a man of the people, and the streets are my campus, the factories my classroom. I traipse all over the city, stand toe-to-toe with workers and entrepreneurs alike, buy pork buns at Maxim’s and groceries at Park’N’Shop. In other words, I go where people live and work. And that gradual sense of change settled over those places.
Gradually, at least at first. And then (to borrow Hemingway’s famous take on bankruptcy) suddenly. Because one day, I suddenly found myself the lone guilo on an MTR subway car at rush hour.
There I was, rattling along in the subway, feeling rather pale and tall, and well… old. You know: that nagging sense of decrepit-old-westerner brought on by sharing a subway with carloads of people who are all shorter, thinner, and younger than you, all talking on cell phones, never mind that you’re all in a tunnel 1,000 feet below the harbor.
And then it hit me: In the wake of the British withdrawal, I had become… the new old China hand.
But differently so. For one thing, email had become widely accessible in Hong Kong just as I started down the path of global profiteering, and quickly replaced telex and fax machine alike in industry communication. The reach of the web and the attendant joys of emailing have not eliminated the need to travel (remember the concept of face?), but it has allowed me to ply the China trade and still live in my beloved Philadelphia.
With email I can send and receive product photos, purchase orders, contracts, and shipping documents. I can beg, plead, scold, and harangue suppliers in my bathrobe, if need be. Not that I would. But I could.
In fact, without the relative immediacy of email I’d no doubt be living in Hong Kong somewhere up in Mid Levels or higher, like the old old China hands. If not permanently, then certainly for a portion of the year. The twenty-two hour door-to-door transit from my Philly home to a Hong Kong hotel precludes more than a handful of trips each year, the pleasures of jet lag, and my keen appreciation of airplane food notwithstanding.
Let’s see: I’ve traded maids, houseboys, spectacular views, and Bentleys for the agony of air travel, nonstop emails, and my bathrobe. And a new empire has arisen, which we might all serve one day, like it or not. Ok, so being an old China hand isn’t what it used to be, but I accept that I am now indeed one, if differently than my predecessors.
I also know my time is limited. It is amazing how effortlessly the young can throw an old hand’s lot into such stark relief against their blinding light. There is a new tribe of traveler out there, twenty and thirty-somethings for whom the web is a given and for whom jet lag is a myth; and more often than not this traveler is female, a significant change in itself. I see these new hands bounding up and down the aisles of the 747s as we hurtle eastward, doing yoga (yoga!) by the emergency exits, their iPods tinkling as they do god-knows-what-else on their impossibly small laptops.
And I sit in the gloaming and say to myself: Someday you too will be an old China hand.
The Professor, as he is known to legions of business contacts throughout Asia, has been traveling to Hong Kong and elsewhere in the region since late in the last millennium. He is a native of Philadelphia, PA and maintains his permanent residence there. His poetry, fiction, interviews, and articles have been published by Philadelphia-area newspapers, magazines and anthologies, and he is currently planning another trip abroad. He is shown here at left, about to join the Maclehose Trail in Sai Kung.
Articles by the Professor
Column: Hong Kong Diary